The Real Thing

At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).

As I drove home from a Bach concert in Santa Fe a month later, the memory of this conversation suddenly returned. Hearing unamplified live music—which takes up a fraction of my music-listening time—made me reflect on the differences between live and reproduced music. What do we get from live music that hi-fi systems can't deliver? Conversely, is there something a playback system can achieve that live music will never provide? Would we be better off forgetting about artificial reproduction and only experiencing live music?

These musings solidified my position on these questions—a position diametrically opposed to that expressed by the audio writer at the breakfast table. Far from being dispensable and superfluous, reproduced music is a vital component of our music-listening lives. And rather than demonstrating human folly, the quest to reproduce music well exemplifies just how important music is to those who pursue high-quality playback (footnote 2).

What reproduced music does that live music can never hope to achieve is allow us the extraordinary luxury of choosing what music we want to hear, when we want to hear it. At this moment I can select from a vast range of musical types and artists and hear them instantly. Performances can be repeated, with a deeper understanding and increased joy from each hearing. In addition, reproduced music exposes us to a panorama of musical forms unimaginable before the advent of audio technology. This is a delight inconceivable to our music-loving predecessors.

But are the distortions and artifacts imposed by the recording and reproduction process too high a price to pay for this convenience? What does live music do for us that we never get from recordings?

Live music has many sonic qualities not captured by recording and reproduction technology, however sophisticated. At the Bach concert, the lack of power and impact of the sound reminded me that hi-fi systems tend to average out live music's wide range of dynamic contrast and vividness. Chamber groups—even the 22-piece ensemble heard at the concert—don't have the immediacy and vividness in real life that we hear when they are artificially reproduced. The additional vibrancy and detail is an artifact of the recording and reproduction process (and often a too-loud playback level). Paradoxically, it is these qualities—vibrancy, immediacy, and power—that a reproduction system lacks when it tries to re-create the sound of a 20-piece big-band playing at full steam. Regression toward the mean seems to be an inviolate rule of audio technology.

This is the quandary: We ask the same electrical and mechanical contrivances to accurately convey the delicacy of a solo violin and the earsplitting power of a big-band. The mechanisms by which a violin creates sound are vastly different from those by which a large brass section makes air move. Yet we expect a combination of cone and dome drivers, and/or a planar device, to reproduce the huge spectrum of texture, power, nuance, and expression originally created by very different mechanisms.

This conundrum is even more apparent if we look at a solo classical guitar and a 100-piece symphony orchestra in terms of their spatial presentations. We expect a realistic reproduction of the orchestra's width—perhaps 70'—from our hi-fi systems. Yet we also expect the same two loudspeakers placed the same 8' apart to reproduce the correct image size of a classical guitar. The result is that the small instrument sounds larger than life, and the large ensemble sounds smaller than reality—again, regression toward the mean. These artifacts inherent in music reproduction are only exacerbated when components in the playback chain impose their own sonic signatures on all music. The result is a tendency to dilute the extremes toward a common denominator.

Other aspects of live music that we never hear from a reproduction include an utter lack of glare, stridency, fatigue, and homogenization. In live music, we can hear with complete ease the individual threads that comprise the whole. After hearing the very different tonal colors from the Concertmaster's and second violinist's instruments individually during Bach's Concerto in d for Two Violins, BWV 1043, I could distinguish them at will from the rest of the string section during the ensemble playing. Similarly, despite the harpsichord being very faint, its musical contribution was always apparent. This fine resolution better communicates the composer's and performers' intent, adding a dimension to live music that we don't get from a reproduction.

Finally, live music provides a sense of privilege at witnessing the creation of something that has never before existed. The interaction of the performers (particularly in jazz), the energy, the sense of being part of this magnificent endeavor of making music, just aren't the same when you sit in front of the loudspeakers.

But these are mere trivialities compared to what reproduced music does convey! A good playback system is capable of expressing the vast majority of the music's meaning and content. The shortcomings are minuscule in relation to how well an improbable combination of vinyl, diamond, copper, silicon, paper, wood, and metal can express both the sonic and emotional components of music. The fact that a digital data stream or mechanical modulations in a piece of vinyl can be transformed into objects—instruments and voices—hanging in three-dimensional space before us is nothing short of miraculous. That the datastream or groove modulations can convey the musicians' expression is even more astonishing. Indeed, such a feat would be considered magic if the mechanisms involved weren't completely (well, almost completely) rational and understood. We criticize what a playback system does wrong while being oblivious to the big picture of how moving and gratifying reproduced music can be.

This is why the audio writer at the breakfast table was dead wrong. The fact that reproduced sound falls short of the live experience is no reason to abandon the quest for a greater musical experience in the home. Instead, it should be the motivation to seek the combination of components that brings us closest to the live experience. If that writer chooses to forego the joy a good playback system can provide, that is his loss. But some of us care about music too much.

Footnote 1: It strikes me as odd that someone would choose to work in a field for which he has no passion, only contempt.—Robert Harley

Footnote 2: Another well-known audio writer recently posted a message on the CompuServe bulletin board that expressed the ennui he felt about audio. He implied that to buy high-performance audio components would seem a pointless exercise when there are more fulfilling ways to spend your money. I echo Robert Harley's sentiment in wondering why a writer would earn a living reporting on an activity he apparently regards as being of limited worth.—John Atkinson